updated 12/25/2006 11:51:03 PM ET 2006-12-26T04:51:03

From the moment the girl’s body was found stuffed in a duffel bag nearly four years ago, her image haunted detective Scott Dudek — her feminine pajama pants, the single ankle sock decorated with snowflakes, the butterfly clip in her hair.

Yet so much was missing — she had no identification, and no one had filed a missing person report.

“We had this beautiful child, and no one was coming forth to claim her,” Dudek said. “But you knew instantaneously this was someone’s little girl.”

The FBI’s crime database lists about 6,000 unidentified victims nationally. Some of them have gone unclaimed for decades. But something about the girl abandoned among the weeds behind a Castro Valley diner struck a cord with Dudek and his team at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.

For the next three years and eight months, the detectives spent long days and thousands of dollars tracking her identity. The teen known as “Jane Doe” became “their girl,” and the case’s ups and downs took an emotional toll. Dudek’s wife asked him to stop discussing the case over Christmas.

Hard work pays off
But the investigators’ persistence paid off. Last week, DNA results gave their victim a name: Yesenia Becerra Nungaray.

Interviews with her mother allowed detectives a glimpse into her life: the doe-eyed teenager had an adventurous streak but was close to her family. She left her small, quiet town in Mexico for the United States on March 14, 2003 — her 16th birthday.

In calls home, she begged her mother to join her, saying even her worst days in the United States were better than her greatest days at home, Dudek said.

Yet six weeks after she left, she was dead.

The detectives were called when the restaurant’s employees found a body wrapped in plastic and folded into a green duffel bag on May 1, 2003.

She had been dead for days — likely asphyxiated with a rag found lodged in her throat. At 5 feet 1 and 110 pounds, she seemed young, somewhere between 12 and 18.

A personal mission
Investigators got to work.

“We felt this was a good kid,” Dudek said. “We were doing everything we could.”

They rounded up specialists, who donated their time to examine her bones and her teeth. They had her DNA tested.

They reached out to the community and neighboring police departments, looking into their missing person reports, eventually checking almost 300 missing girl cases nationwide.

No one had reported her missing.

But the community rallied around her, and the girl without a name was buried under a marker reading “Unknown Child of God” in a funeral paid for by nearly 100 people. Dozens attended the ceremony, though probably none of them knew her.

Dudek got a lead in February 2004 while reading an article that mentioned the hundreds of unsolved disappearances of young women along the border with Mexico.

He and other investigators traveled to El Paso, Texas, and met with mothers yearning for news of their missing daughters. They took eight DNA samples from cases that seemed related and waited weeks for the results.

None matched.

Reward money brings crucial lead
In June 2006, the county offered a $50,000 reward for relevant information, adding to the $5,000 reward from the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation. County Supervisor Gail Steele said she was moved by the death of a child who had no one to mourn her.

The leads flowed in, and investigators hit on a major development.

An undocumented immigrant, Miguel Angel Nunez Castaneda, had apparently lived in Hayward with the victim. He is not a suspect but is considered a “person of interest” and is being sought by police.

Detectives suspected the girl, like Nunez, might be from Yahualica, a small town of 35,000 in the Mexican state of Jalisco where the majority of families have relatives in the United States.

They again made the trip south, taking with them fliers bearing the girl’s likeness, and her story, as they knew it, printed in Spanish. For three days, they spread the word to residents.

It paid off.

One of the fliers landed in the hands of Maria Del Carmen, a mother of three whose middle child, her only daughter, had left for the United States. At first she called regularly. One day her calls stopped.

‘At least now she knows’
On their last day in Mexico, the detectives visited Del Carmen and talked to her into the night, looking through pictures and sharing their story, Dudek said.

They learned enough to believe they’d hit on the right family. But they needed a DNA test to confirm their hunch.

Last week, they got their answer. The girl’s mother was devastated.

“It’s sad, but at least now she knows,” Dudek said.

Del Carmen was moved to learn how a community of strangers had come to care for her daughter, dedicating years to investigate her death and giving her a dignified burial, he said.

Now the officers are raising money to move Yesenia’s body back to Mexico so she can be buried near her family. And they’re gearing up for the next step: finding her killer.

“We’ve got this monster out there who killed her and dumped her like she was a bag of trash,” Dudek said. “I always felt confident that once we identified her, we’d find her killer.”

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